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Public art vs. blight: How do we get it right?
SeeSAW brings color and class to the wall at the West Broad YMCA. - photo by Lens Anderson

The Historic Site and Monument Commission meets the first Thursday of every other month, info at

OVER THE SUMMER, I had the good fortune to visit Park City, Utah, a small city with a huge heart for public art.

Underpasses shimmer with murals depicting the town’s mining legacy. Life-sized bronze bears wait for hugs on Main Street’s benches. Fish sculptures and drums made from hubcaps line paved walking trails.

At every turn, there’s a chance to gape and grin and engage: There’s even a Shoe Tree where locals and tourists, presumably so overcome by all of this stimulating beauty, throw their kicks into the branches and dance off barefoot.

I really like my fancy Fleet Feet running shoes, so those stayed with me. But as I waltzed around town pounding out a rhythm here, admiring a spray-painted stencil by the famous Banksy there, I wondered for the eleventy billionth time, why can’t we have more of this kind of stuff in Savannah?

Well, first of all, if people started tossing sneakers into a live oak, some sour-tempered citizen would shriek that it attracts drug dealers and the City Council would have to spend six months discussing which department had to take it down.

Secondly, we already have tons of “public art” in the form of historical markers and monuments, and if we added in a bunch of dynamic modern sculptures and colorful murals downtown, some feel it might diminish the sacrosanct significance of all those stodgy Civil War statues.

Also, in spite of how much joy it brings to some, not everybody thinks art ought to be shaking its thang out in public. While Park City has achieved an exhilarating balance between quirky aesthetics and community pride, other places have ended up with some hideous mistakes. (“Mais bien sûr, César Baldaccini’s 40-foot wrinkly thumb is my favorite!” said no Parisian, ever.)

In Wisconsin, the rush to revitalize with public art has devolved into “civic ambition gone awry, like a bad nose job,” argues Urban Milwaukee columnist Tom Bamberger in his article, “The Resistable Rise of Public Art.”

“The public art brought to you by the county, city, and community groups are like bowling trophies that clutter a home, functioning as signifiers of accomplishment for community leaders but faintly idiotic for the rest of us.”

What a partypooper. But Bamberger has a point: There’s a difference between good art and good intentions.

We certainly have our own share of “shake my head” instances of public art in Savannah: How ‘bout the giant xylophone with no mallet in Forsyth Park? And don’t even get me started on that goddamn wading fountain that no one’s allowed to wade in.

Maybe the reason why we can’t have nice things is because we still haven’t quite learned to take care of them. In 1993, the city brought in internationally-renowned sculptor Jerome Meadows to build a $300K public art project in Yamacraw Square; today the three bronzed children and their fountain remain defaced and neglected. [Read more in the 2/26/14 edition of the (Civil) Society Column.]

Now an established pillar of the local arts community, Jerome advocates that the way to approach public art in Savannah is to understand that it establishes its own kind of “sacred ground.” He also counsels that the way to ensure against the kind of rampant bad taste Bamberger raves against is to maintain a careful, thoughtful conversation between the entity that governs the public art realm and the citizenry that has to live with its decisions.

“Who is the ‘public’ that public art is designed to serve?” he wondered at an ARC Savannah lecture at the Jepson in July. (I praise the art gods regularly that this city has Jerome and his wonderful Indigo Sky Community Gallery, but he’s also got to wonder sometimes why the hell he’s still here.)

We have a unique, diverse public to serve here in Savannah when it comes to public art, all joshing about effigies of constipated-looking generals aside. Our valuable historical preservation requires a certain conservative approach, but our arts community craves and deserves a more enthusiastic creative climate.

Even with the long-overdue approval of the city’s mural policy last year, we still need to get beyond the notion that street art equals graffiti. Yes, spray-can vandalism remains a city-wide scourge, but more examples of outdoor art will teach the taggers better techniques.

“People want to go outside and paint on walls. That’s not going to change,” point outs artist Matt Hebermehl, who co-authored the city’s mural policy in 2012 and will likely be quoted in every article about public art in Savannah for time immemorial.

“Let’s rechannel that energy and allow people to make art instead of blight.”

Matt and SeeSAW collaborators Jose Ray and Kellie Walker recently completed two more public murals: The shiny, happy children now presiding over the Growing Edge Community Garden at the West Broad YMCA and the electric-hued geometry on the Paulsen Street side of the Kayak Kafé’s new Midtown location have brightened our little world. But places like Broughton and River Street—where the majority of visitors to Savannah magnetize—are still off limits.

When it comes to approving projects—including murals and markers—the curatorial power lies at the feet of the MPC’s Historic Site and Monument Commission. Anyone can submit a proposal, but so far only Matt’s crew has withstood the piles of paperwork and months of waiting.

But things could speed up with the recent appointment of Giselle Rahn, a design strategist by trade and artist herself. The only woman on the commission—and its only member under 30—Giselle brings a heady combo of applicable intelligence and passion to the cause.

“I don’t have an agenda, but it’s fair to say I bring a certain enthusiasm,” she laughs. “Public art sets the tone of a place, and I hope to help Savannah realize the economic and cultural benefits of more of it.”

Hear, hear! There’s only one problem: As of now, there are no proposals on the books. I’m not saying anyone is going to dig your vision for a giant hairy nose in the middle of Pulaski Square, but let’s give these good folks some ideas to consider, shall we?

SeeSAW brings color and class to the wall at the West Broad YMCA.